Helping Dolphins In Zanzibar

Rollins student Becca Hamilton ’15 honored for research examining how tourists and local businesses interact with the ocean-going mammals off the east coast of Africa.

A reputation for clear water and large numbers of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins has turned some seaside villages in Zanzibar into international tourist hotspots, drawing many who want to swim with the mammals in their natural ocean habitat.

Unfortunately, the increase in tourist trade and aggressive local business practices have created a hectic environment that stresses the animals. It also has left tourists dissatisfied, and local merchants fretting about their future in the islands off the east coast of Africa.

Those are among the findings from a study conducted last fall in the Zanzibar village of Kizimkazi by Becca Hamilton ’15 as part of a SIT Study Abroad program. It was one of several projects sponsored internationally by the well-known and accredited program.

A site for dolphin tours in Kizimkazi, Zanzibar. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Hamilton ’15) A site for dolphin tours in Kizimkazi, Zanzibar. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Hamilton ’15)

During her time there, Hamilton witnessed pods of anguished dolphins surrounded by more than a dozen boats, where captains cannot afford to show concern for the mammals because they are competing with each other to send as many tourists as possible into their midst. Although the marine biology major strove to maintain a neutral, scientific attitude during her research, the scenes often were distressing.

“I’ve seen three dolphins chased and surrounded by 15 boats,” Hamilton said. “I was close to tears.”

However, Hamilton refrained from giving advice or opinions to the tourists she accompanied on short outings on the Indian Ocean. “It doesn’t have to be an intrinsically bad activity,” Hamilton said of the dolphin-related tourism. “But the boats weren’t following guidelines, and the dolphins weren’t having enough time to rest and eat and take care of their young.”

Moreover, she found that what was bad for dolphins was bad for business. In addition to surveying tourists and boat captains, she also interviewed business owners in the area and local government officials. She found that all sides realized that the mostly unregulated activities were hurting tourism, the local economy, and, quite possibly, the dolphin population.

Children in Kizimkazi, Zanzibar, take a photo with Hamilton. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Hamilton ’15) Children in Kizimkazi, Zanzibar, take a photo with Hamilton. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Hamilton ’15)

Her resulting study, “An evaluation of potential management options for the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose dolphin population in Kizimkazi, Zanzibar,” placed first in the poster presentation competition at the 14th Annual International Conference of the American Cetacean Society in Newport Beach, California. She was honored at the conference banquet dinner and received a prize of $250.

Her multi-disciplined approach uncovered several crucial findings, including the fact that tourists pay $30 to $60 for a 30-minute session, but the boat drivers only get $5 per tourist. “They rely on tips, so they have to be aggressive and get too close to the dolphins.”

One of her recommendations is to set a higher pay rate for the boat owners and enforce the approved guidelines for dolphin interactions. Those rules include approaching dolphins slowly and keeping the boats a good distance ahead of the dolphins. The preferred method involves spotting a group of dolphins, boating far ahead of them, dropping off the tourists in their expected path, and moving the boats out the way. That allows the dolphins to choose to interact with the humans, who are bobbing up and down in the water. Being naturally curious creatures, the mammals will usually stop to inspect the floating people.

Other recommendations include the need for more research on how the dolphin population is effected by the motor noise from aggressive tour boats and the potentially lethal nets of fishing boats.

A site for dolphin tours in Kizimkazi, Zanzibar. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Hamilton ’15) A site for dolphin tours in Kizimkazi, Zanzibar. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Hamilton ’15)

Hamilton plans to pursue a doctorate in the study and conservation of cetaceans, which refers to scientific grouping that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Her interest in those sea creatures began while watching documentaries on television when she was a youngster in Scotland. After her family moved to Florida when Hamilton was in middle school, she continued reading and learning about the ocean-dwelling mammals.

She finds dolphins endlessly fascinating. “I think it’s their capacity for complexities and intelligence. They have very complex social structures. For example, killer whales—the largest member of the dolphin family—are even be more socially bonded than humans.”

Dolphins communicate with each other through whistles and squeaks that still baffle researchers. “Their communications system is very evolved,” she says. “We don’t even fully understand it yet.” However, scientists have been able to determine that each dolphin identifies itself by a unique whistle that other members of its group recognize.

Hamilton wishes every well-meaning tourist could have a dolphin encounter similar to hers—unstressed and unrushed. Following the approved (but often ignored) local guidelines in Zanzibar, a boat dropped her off ahead of a group of dolphins and then got out of their path.

“The dolphins passed me by, then they started circling me and hung out with me for 15 to 20 minutes,” Hamilton says. “It was totally their decision. It can be a calm experience on their own terms. They obviously were getting something out of it, too.”